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Singing for YOU, the audience

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As I pondered this entry earlier this week, I was determined to explain why I have done Messiah for 23 straight years, especially due to my original wandering from section to section (Tenor2 to Bass1 to Bass2, back to Tenor2) since my joining the Chorus in 1986. But then I noticed that the other bloggers were focusing on those very same themes … so I am going to take a slightly different tack – YOU, the audience!

Hallelujah! Comfort ye my people! Lift up your heads!

For without you, my friends, neighbors and momentary acquaintances, there would be no Chorus, or wonderful works like Messiah, to enjoy being a part of.

You allow me to be the singer, the ham, the voyeur, the artiste (well some may argue that point). It is your good taste, your desire to be entertained and swept away in the many nuances of Handel’s masterpiece, which inspires great works. With your sparkly holiday frocks (yes, we notice you fabulous dressers) your attempts to introduce your young children and disinterested teens to the joy of music, and your secret desire to sing out the recitatives and “Hallelujah” with your smuggled score in hand, you all add to the excitement of the season.

The people that walked in darkness! Then shall the eyes of the blind be open!

I know my parents always tried to instill in my siblings and me some cultural foundations, and how that would help us in life … bring us into the light … open our eyes. With all the current discussions about what is wrong with our educational systems, you, dear audience, are doing exactly the right things as my parents, even if it sometimes seems it is only for you. Keep trying.

Why do the nations so furiously rage? Let us break these bonds asunder!

So keep up the good work. Revel in the glory of not only Messiah but maybe also Verdi’s Requiem in January, or Scheherazade in April, or even the Pops tribute to Ray Charles in May. After all – you are the ones with good taste!

Amen! Hallelujah!

-Bob Alban, Tenor2


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December 17, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Mastering melismas + other joys of the timeless “Messiah”

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This next post comes from William McCallum, who has been a Houston Symphony Chorister for over 12 years!

I have been a member of the Houston Symphony Chorus for over 12 years and this will be my eighth season singing Messiah. During the day I am an internal medicine physician and work predominantly with cancer patients in the Texas Medical Center (I am a member of the staff at both Methodist Hospital and St Luke’s). However, my perspective changes on Tuesday evenings when I arrive for rehearsal with the HSC.

These 3 hours are reserved for time to prepare any number of pieces that will be performed with Houston Symphony. Learning something new is fun and sometimes a great challenge depending on the time allowed for preparation and the difficulty of the piece.  Messiah is a piece that (by now) is very familiar to us as far as the outline of the piece and the notes are concerned; but it is like exercise that you must practice to achieve results. So with preparation for a new season, there is always a bit of anticipation as to how the conductor will conceive the performance of this work and thus make modifications to achieve his/her version of it. It is a work that lends itself, within a framework, to interpretation without losing the intent of the composer, who in regards to this piece did the same thing.

My score is filled with comments and explanations that various conductors have given us over the years. Many are very businesslike, but others are sayings and comments that show some of the conductor’s personality. For instance, at the beginning of For Unto Us A Child Is Born, one conductor started to conduct the chorus by saying “tick tock” and then off we would go. Another, demonstrating the contrasts in the chorus of Since By Man Came Death, referred to it as a Gin and Tonic conversation. It is easily understood when one hears this chorus that it has nothing to do with a drink.

An example of a melisma.

The vocal gymnastics (otherwise known as melismas – stretching one sound over a line of notes) in a chorus like For Unto Us A Child Is Born are difficult to learn, but once mastered are an accomplishment to be savored. For a Bass, certainly one of the highlights has to be when the Bass section begins the final grand “Amen” which brings this most beloved work to its conclusion.

The other joy for me is the appreciation and love for this music that the audience has. This is a piece that for many generations has brought joy not only through the musical beauty, but also family traditions that surrounds attending performances together.

-William McCallum, Bass/Baritone

A conversation between 15 conductors and Händel

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Our next blog entry comes from Catherine Howard, who teaches English at the University of Houston-Downtown.  She was a section leader in the Houston Symphony Chorus for four years.

People think I’m crazy to want to sing a piece over and over.  I’ve been in the Houston Symphony Chorus for 18 years, and this year I’ll perform the Messiah for the 71st time.  (And there are many people in the chorus way ahead of me on that number!)  Why on earth would a person DO that to herself?  It helps that the Messiah is such a complex and varied composition.  I find that I learn—really learn—a piece when given the opportunity to perform it three or four times in a concert series as we do with the Symphony, rather than just a single time. However, I can think of very few pieces that I’d want to sing more than 50 times.  Of course Händel has so many musical ideas—for instance repeated motifs, dotted rhythms to represent flagellation or to set the mood for royalty, gorgeous dramatic representations in the solos, and so on.  It’s difficult to get bored, even in the third or fourth concert in the series.  Even so, 18 years is a lot of years to work on this piece.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that one of the things I enjoy most is getting to know the different conductors and watching them interact with Händel . . .

Catherine's marked-up score

It’s always exciting when a new conductor comes.  Will it be baroque, transparent, light this year?  Or more Romantic, heavy, thoughtful?  Will we get to do “But Thanks”?  What kind of funny stories will we hear?  And what about all those wacky sit-and-stand cues that are different every time?  As the element of surprise quickly fades, old voices from my score take over and begin to interact with the newcomer.  When I started with HSC, I owned a score at home, but the chorus librarian would never let me buy the one I checked out to use every year—the one with all the interesting marks I was beginning to acquire.  So one year I just “took it hostage.”  Later that summer, Tropical Storm Allison flooded the lower levels of Jones Hall, and all Messiah scores were destroyed;  therefore, I have one of the only extant copies of our conductors’ notes going back in the years before that.  You wouldn’t believe how many permutations of rhythms are possible on the first page of “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Tempos can vary widely, too—looking back through my score, I found one fugue with metronome markings of quarter = 162 and quarter = 88 for different years.  But most conductors address more than just the mechanics of the piece.

They discuss technique (“bubbly, effervescent runs”; Nicholas McGegan:  “It’s quite easy in this piece to sound like pirates. ‘Loight’ instead of ‘light.’  And then we’d have to issue parrots . . . “;  Robert King:  “Your words are your bowing arm”), history (both influences/homages, as for example to Palestrina or Monteverdi, and foreshadowing—Will Lacey:  “a minor 9th!  That Schoenberg moment!”), analysis (Bernard Labadie:  “It’s in Ab major—as far as you can get from D major, the 18th-century key of light”;  Lacey:  “Here Händel associates the tri-tone, the ‘devil’s interval,’ with original sin . . .”), mood and tone (Jane Glover:  “That word!  So bleak . . .”;  Jean-Marie Zeitouni:  “bell tones of aggressive-passive contained anger”;  McGegan:  “Think ‘intimate’!”), and even philosophy (Christopher Warren-Green:  “separate ‘god . . . that . . .he.’  Then it is really rhetorical, which is what the baroque is all about”;  Zeitouni:  “Basses, if you are too energetic, it can sound like Santa”).

Who could forget McGegan quoting Pope’s “Essay on Man” in practically the same breath that he warned, “Don’t sing like Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies”?  Or Christopher Seaman making us whistle the entire “His Yoke Is Easy”?  Or Glover pointing out Händel’s musical jokes?  Or Zeitouni making Sigmund the Sea Monster motions with his hands during “And the Glory of the Lord”?  Or King telling us to roll the r’s “like a whole choir of cats purring”?  Or Grant Llewellyn deciding at the intermission of the Sunday afternoon performance that we should be arranged in quartets for the evening performance two hours later (which nearly gave the chorus manager a heart attack, as she scrambled to rearrange the seating chart during our “in-between” party)?  Or Lacey imploring us to “Believe in something!” in the long pause between the final two “Amen”s?  Or Harry Bicket frozen in an elegant Christmas ornament pose, left hand up high at the end of a movement—for a full 3 1/2 minutes while a stagehand came out to remove a soprano who’d fainted?

No matter what, I try to keep in mind McGegan’s admonition that “There’s always going to be somebody who’s hearing this piece for the first time.”  The best conductors bring something new to the piece for me.  All of them make me think about what it means, musically.  Händel’s famous reply to the compliment applies here:  “Sire, I have endeavoured not to entertain you—but to make you better.”

So why am I doing this yet again this year?  It doesn’t matter whether I like the conductor or not.  No matter whether my excitement fades because of a ponderous interpretation or I’m uplifted by a sparkling “take,” my score gives me a conversation among fifteen conductors and Händel himself:  a debate and exchange and enactment of what the Messiah means—not just how to get the textual message across musically, but the true musical meaning of the piece.  Perhaps most important of all, though, is that more than for anything else we sing, the Messiah every year is a reminder that a composition is a living, changing thing.  THAT’s why I do this to myself.

—Catherine Howard, Alto II

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December 15, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Taking the Chorus out for a spin

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Ahead of the orchestra’s performances of Handel’s Messiah in Candlelight this weekend, we invited members of the Houston Symphony Chorus (who, by the way, just celebrated their 1000th performance!), to write about their experience preparing for such a huge piece. Our first entry comes from Susan Scarrow, the manager of the Houston Symphony Chorus.  In her “day job” she is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.

Tuesday evening is the piano rehearsal for this year’s Messiah performance and I am really looking forward to it.  Piano rehearsals are my favorite part of the whole rehearsal process.  The term “piano rehearsal” is a bit misleading, because of course all of our regular rehearsals have piano accompaniment – in our case, this is generally provided by the amazingly talented Scott Holshouser, the Houston Symphony’s principal keyboard.  Scott’s artistry is a crucial part of our preparations for any piece.  He doesn’t just play the notes, though he does that extremely well.  More importantly, and much more rarely, Scott somehow “orchestrates” his playing so that we become familiar with the instrumentation long before we start rehearsing with the Symphony.  But I digress.

A piano rehearsal is the final Chorus rehearsal before the chorus and orchestra rehearse together, and it is the first chance for the week’s conductor to run through the piece with the Chorus.  For concerts with visiting conductors (Matthew Halls is conducting this week’s Messiah performance), the whole evening is a lot like a mutual test drive of a new car.  The conductor will take the Chorus out for a spin, seeing how fast we can sing the many tricky melismas, hearing how softly we can sign those pianissimos, maybe sprinkling in a few new vocal ornaments to see how they sound.  At the same time, we singers will get to know the maestro’s conducting patterns, figuring out how he is going to start pieces, learning his tempos.  In a piano rehearsal for Messiah, a piece we all know well, we also usually learn something about a conductor’s performance practice approach, and even about his or her theology.

For instance, what IS the most important word in the phrase “For unto us a child is born?”  Is it “us”, “child”, or “born”?   And are the pick-up notes in “Behold the Lamb of God” sixteenth notes or eighth notes?   If you listen closely to our performances, you will hear that each year’s conductor has a different set of answers to these and other seemingly minor questions, and their answers are often grounded in strong and thoughtful convictions.  At the piano rehearsals, conductors will take the time to explain some of the convictions behind the musical details they are asking for, sometimes giving these rehearsals an element of being master-classes with world-class musicians.  The mutual insights we gain at Tuesday’s rehearsal will guide us through the week, forming the basis for the understanding and trust that is an essential part of the wordless communication that you witness in any good performance.

Susan Scarrow, Soprano II

Before Frodo … there was Siegfried

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In the Houston Symphony’s Wagner’s “Ring” Without Words, you’ll be able to follow this fantastic storyline as it’s projected on our in-house video screens, all while the orchestra plays its greatest themes.

Before Frodo, there was Siegfried

Not Siegfried from Siegfried and Roy … NOT THEM!  Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle is a series of four operas that not only marked a revolution in musical theater, but also paved the way for TV shows that leave us hanging for months, waiting for the next season.

Great marketing, really! But waiting is no fun …

We say that because Richard Wagner, the genius behind these masterpieces, wrote the two first operas, Das Rheingold ( The Rhine Gold) and Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), then starved his fans for twelve years before laying the final notes on Siegfried and the final installation, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods).  The whole thing happened in a 30-year span. That’s way too long to wait for the season finale!

But we digress …

Frodo was a hero.  Siegfried was a hero.  Frodo was fearless.  Siegfried was fearless – at least ‘til he saw the first woman he’s ever seen.  You see, the poor hero was brought up by a dwarf.  He didn’t know any better.  Or did he?  But Frodo was too.  Brought up by a dwarf, that is. Wait … it was a Hobbit!

Now I’m confused …

Sad as it is, Siegfried does not live to see the end of Wagner’s tetralogy.  On the other hand, Frodo does conquer evil at the end.

Tolkien actually did study Wagner’s operas before writing his books.  Though the stories are similar, they are the product of two incredibly creative geniuses.

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September 17, 2010 at 9:25 am

Wagner, his “Ring” and how Luke Skywalker comes in the picture

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Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell took the time to share a little about one of the musical loves of his life, Wagner’s “The Ring Without Words,” ahead of next week’s concert! We knew of the comparisons to the Lord of the Ring, but Star Wars? Learn more about it by reading below.

It should come as no surprise that I’m even more excited than usual for the Houston Symphony’s upcoming performances of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Without Words,” because I am a child of the late 1970s.  Let me explain.

My introduction to Wagner’s great four-opera masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelung, was probably the same as many in my generation: through Star Wars.   This isn’t actually as far-fetched as it might sound, as there are a great number of parallels between Wagner’s masterpiece and George Lucas’.  (In fact, there are whole websites devoted exclusively to comparing the two.  See, for example, Kristian Evensen’s incredibly thorough exploration of structural, thematic, and musical connections between these operas and films).

Richard Wagner

The Ring, as it is affectionately known, is truly the greatest spectacle in all of opera; some believe that it is most impressive artistic accomplishment in all of classical music.  Just the scale of the works is astonishing: the shortest of the four operas (Das Rheingold) lasts two and a half hours, while the longest (Götterdämmerung) lasts almost twice that long.  The total duration of the four operas put together is an astonishing fifteen hours (experienced over four nights, naturally).  Lucas’s saga occupies a similar place in the pantheon of film achievement: His six Star Wars films clock in at a combined thirteen hours.

Even the time it took these create these two epics is similar: It took Wagner around twenty-six years (from 1848 to 1874) to compose the four operas of The Ring, while Lucas’s six-film saga spanned twenty-eight years (1977 to 2005).  In other words, while both Wagner and Lucas created other well-known, much-loved works (think only of Tristan und Isolde and Indiana Jones), they spent the majority of their creative lives on one, epic project.  Nothing similar has been attempted in either the world of opera or film, before or since.

Part of the reason both The Ring and Star Wars are so successful is because, while they both tell specific stories, they are archetypal tales; the stories are only vehicles for dealing with much broader, universal themes.  Both are epic sagas that explore love, betrayal, greed, desire…and they both deal with their own fair share of paternity issues!  (For those interested in delving a little deeper into these archetypes, I heartily recommend the late, great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces).

Further inviting comparison between The Ring and Star Wars is that Lucas has always referred to these films as “space operas.”  He even convinced his musical collaborator, the great John Williams, to compose a symphonic, sweeping score, which was quite out of fashion when the series’ first film was released in 1977.  Not only did Williams write a full-blown, symphonic (i.e., Romantic, Wagnerian) score, he used a Wagnerian technique known as the leitmotif: a recurrent, instantly recognizable theme associated with a particular person, idea, or situation that occurs throughout a musical work.  Wagner uses leitmotifs throughout The Ring to instantly identify (among others) Valhalla (home of the gods), Siegfried (his main hero), and the concept of the renunciation of love; Williams does the same with the Death Star, Luke Skywalker, the Force, and many more.

Perhaps the most famous leitmotif from The Ring is “The Ride of the Valkyries”; the most famous from Star Wars (other than the Main Title) is likely Darth Vader’s theme, the Imperial March.  Both are so successful that they have long since escaped their original contexts and are found everywhere in our culture; even people who have never heard The Ring or seen Star Wars know these melodies.

This leads us back to the tremendous staying power of this phenomenal music that Wagner wrote for The Ring.  Once I learned of the many connections between Wagner’s work and Star Wars (sometime in my late teens), I promptly bought scores and recordings of all four operas, and listened through them one by one over the course of about a month.  As I got to know the operas better, I realized how many similarities there were between them and Star Wars, and fell in love with Wagner’s work just as quickly as I had with Lucas’s films and Williams’s music.

Even now, when I sit in a concert hall and listen to—or stand on the podium and conduct—music from Wagner’s Ring (which has become one of the great loves of my musical life), it’s hard not to think back to my first musical love affair: John Williams’s scores for the Star Wars films.  I first fell in love with Star Wars, then fell just as deeply in love with The Ring.  Having just conducted some of Star Wars here in July, I can’t wait to hear Hans and our spectacular orchestra take us all on an hour-long adventure through the exhilarating, passionate music of Wagner’s Ring.

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September 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm

A salute to Mexico’s Independence

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Intern Keith has returned to the blogosphere to give us a little bit of history on some of the Mexican composers we’ll feature during Sunday’s Chevron Fiesta Sinfonica concert. The concert is set to begin at 6 p.m. and is FREE to the public. Just visit us online to learn how to snag your ticket today!

Even the astute music lover can’t be faulted for missing some of the great works of Mexican classical music. Popular works of Villa-Lobos or Ginastera influence our conception of Latin American music, but we rarely get a specific look at the music of Mexico, a nation with such a strong musical tradition. It seems improbable that our concert halls aren’t bursting with classics from the Mexican canon.

This year, another improbability brings these classics to our ears for maybe the first time. 2010 is the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence from colonial rule, and the centennial of the Mexican revolution.

Chevron Fiesta Sinfonica, a Houston Symphony tradition, is celebrating this rare occasion by bringing a free program dedicated to the music of Mexico’s most celebrated composers.  Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell will lead the orchestra beginning at 6 p.m. Sunday — just four days before Mexican Independence is celebrated. You may not recognize some of the composers’ names, but the sounds are very familiar.

Arturo Marquez’ Danzon No. 2 is a lively piece interspersed with periods of virtuosic lyricism. The music changes frequently, all without losing its underlying tango rhythm. It’s a work designed to showcase an individual (there are solos for violin, flute, trumpet), a section (the percussion section is especially active), and the orchestra as a whole.

Marquez, whose father was a mariachi musician, seeks to incorporate his national influences into his works. Danzon No. 2, his most popular work, is named for a dance that originated in Cuba and Mexico. Premiered in 1994, the work has gone on to find worldwide acclaim. The electrifying piece has been called Mexico’s “second national anthem.”

The colorful life of Silvestre Revueltas is reflected in his music. Born literally at the turn of the 20th century –Dec. 31st, 1899 — he studied music in Mexico and the United States, conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, and worked for the Republicans in Spain during the civil war, leaving after the Nationalists consolidated power. He composed music for Mexican films, and even appeared in one titled “Vámanos con Pancho Villa!” where he appears as a piano player. In the scene, a shootout erupts, and Revueltas is seen holding a sign reading, “Don’t Shoot the Piano Player.” During his tenure as conductor, he began writing a string of orchestral pieces, including his most famous work, “Sensemaya,” based on the poem by Nicolás Guillén.

Carlos Chavez

The music of composer Carlos Chavez shows a strong connection to the indigenous and folk music of Mexico. To him, it is “a reality of contemporary life, not…a relic to satisfy mere curiosity on the part of intellectuals.” Chavez wrote,  “The force of indigenous art is rooted in a series of essential conditions… and imported manifestations opposed to the feeling of the music have been unable to destroy it because they have not succeeded in changing the ethical conditions of individuals.” Chavez is at the same time indicting Western art music for subjugating folk music, and praising the strength and durability of folk music itself.

In this way, he is a kindred spirit to Bela Bartok, who, around the same time, was composing in a nationalistic style in defiance of Western culture. Like Bartok, Chavez synthesizes indigenous music with Western instrumentation. The result, Sinfonía India, composed in 1935, is an eclectic pastiche of sounds. Chavez wrote in the program notes, “The great expressive strength of indigenous art is rooted in its intrinsic variety.” Listening to the piece is like taking a tour from city to city, each with its own sound world, its own canción. Once a section is played, it may never be heard again.

Nationality is not the only commonality between these composers. They are also united by generation. That makes this concert the rare concert populated entirely by 20th century composers. This ensures that the range of styles will be diverse and extraordinary. These works are of inestimable value to an emerging Mexican canon that is only beginning to be explored.